Are Candles & Essential Oils Impacting Your Health? - AirDoctor

Home fragrances make your home feel cozy, and research shows the numerous benefits of aromatherapy for everything from anxiety and depression to pain and sleep disturbances. But while scenting your rooms is a great way to banish odors and give your olfactory receptors a happy boost, not all home fragrances are as safe as you might think. 

Here, we look at two of the most popular ways to freshen up the air in your home—scented candles and essential oil diffusion—and how some products may be emitting more than nice smells into your home’s air. 

Are Scented Candles Toxic?

The use of scented candles has become wildly popular over the years, but most of them are made using paraffin, a petroleum product that releases harmful chemicals into the air when it’s burned. Additionally, the fragrances used to scent these candles contain numerous toxic chemicals, posing negative health effects to users, including:

  • Headaches
  • Respiratory problems
  • Allergic reactions
  • Nausea
  • Eye irritation

Here are some of the worst chemicals found in scented candles and why they are considered harmful.

  • Phthalates are commonly used in fragrance oils to help the scent last longer. They’re known to disrupt hormone levels and have been linked to various health problems, including reproductive and developmental issues.
  • Formaldehyde is often used as a preservative in fragrances and can cause eye and respiratory irritation, and it’s a known carcinogen that may cause cancer.
  • Acrolein is released when certain fragrances are burned. It’s known to cause eye and respiratory irritation, and it’s been linked to lung cancer.
  • Benzene is another known carcinogen that may cause leukemia and other cancers when it’s inhaled.
  • Toluene is a neurotoxin that can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea when it’s inhaled. It has also been linked to developmental issues in children.
  • Lead exposure is linked to a number of serious health problems, including developmental issues and cognitive impairment. While lead candle wicks have been banned in the United States, some wicks still contain lead in the coating. 
  • Carbon monoxide is released when anything containing carbon is burned and can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea. In high concentrations, carbon monoxide is deadly.

What You May Not Know About Essential Oils and Air Quality

While essential oils are a safer way to scent your home, research shows that they, too, emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which contribute to indoor air pollution and pose health risks. 

A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that essential oils emit VOCs like limonene and linalool, which can react with other chemicals in the air to create formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Additionally, essential oils can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory problems. 


Another study found that essential oils emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) regardless of whether they are organic or pure. These VOCs can contribute to indoor air pollution and potentially cause health problems when inhaled. 

Essential oils emit a number of VOCs:

  • Limonene is commonly found in citrus oils and reacts with ozone in the air to create formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Limonene can also cause skin and eye irritation and respiratory problems when inhaled.
  • Linalool is found in many essential oils, including lavender and bergamot oils, and can cause skin and eye irritation as well as respiratory problems when inhaled. Linalool can also react with ozone in the air to create formaldehyde.
  • Alpha-pinene and beta-pinene are commonly found in pine and fir oils and can react with other chemicals in the air to create formaldehyde. Additionally, alpha-pinene can cause skin and eye irritation, while beta-pinene can cause respiratory problems.
  • Eucalyptol is found in eucalyptus oil and can cause skin and eye irritation as well as respiratory problems when inhaled.

While essential oils are generally considered safer than other synthetic fragrances, it’s important to use them in moderation and with proper ventilation to minimize potential health effects.

Are Essential Oil Diffusers safe?

It’s not just the essential oils that are worrisome, but also how you send their scent molecules into the air. Many people use diffusers, which can compound the problems associated with essential oils. Some types of diffusers are worse than others.

Ultrasonic Diffusers 

These diffusers use water to disperse essential oils into the air. While they are generally considered safer than other types of diffusers, they produce a fine mist that can cause respiratory irritation when inhaled.

Nebulizing Diffusers

These diffusers use pressurized air to break down essential oils into small particles and disperse them into the air. While nebulizing diffusers don’t use water, they can produce a strong concentration of essential oils in your air that can result in respiratory problems.

Heat Diffusers

These diffusers use heat to evaporate the essential oils and disperse them into the air, but the heat can alter the chemical composition of the oils and create harmful byproducts.

Atomizing Diffusers

Atomizing diffusers are the safest type of diffuser. They don’t utilize water to diffuse essential oils, but unlike nebulizing diffusers, they meter the amount of oil diffused into the air to prevent strong concentrations of oil that can irritate the throat or lungs.

To minimize potential health risks of scenting your home with essential oils, diffuse them in a well-ventilated area and avoid overusing them. Choose high-quality, pure essential oils, and opt for a waterless diffuser that uses lower concentrations of the oils. 

Safer Ways to Scent Your Home

While air filtration can help reduce toxins in the air associated with scented candles and essential oil diffusers, the safest way to maintain a healthy indoor environment is to avoid using these home fragrance methods altogether. 

Fortunately, there are many safer alternatives to make your home smell fresh and clean. Try one or more of these methods instead:

    1. Open the windows: Simply opening windows for a few minutes each day can help circulate fresh air to reduce odors and indoor air pollution.
    2. Set out baking soda: Baking soda absorbs odors and can be used with vinegar to clean surfaces. Once the vinegar odor dissipates, it leaves behind a fresh, clean scent.
    3. Burn beeswax or soy candles: If you prefer candles, look for beeswax or soy candles scented with pure essential oils. Soy and beeswax are less likely than petroleum-based wax to contain harmful chemicals, but they still provide a pleasant scent.
    4. Simmer herbs and spices: Toss your favorite herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, and rosemary, into a small pot filled with water, and simmer them on the stove to send a natural, pleasant scent throughout your home.
  • Use an atomizing diffuser: An atomizing essential oil diffuser is similar to a nebulizer, except that it releases the oils in controlled, measured doses to prevent over-saturating your air with scent molecules. Our sister company, AromaTru, offers a best-in-class essential oil atomizing diffuser—and high-quality, pure essential oils to use with it.

These safer alternatives reduce your risk of illness associated with chemical fragrances, and they’re a great place to start if you want to create a non-toxic home for better health. 

Final Thoughts 

While scented candles and essential oil diffusers contribute to indoor air pollution, they’re not the only source of toxic fragrance chemicals in your home. Cleaning supplies, air fresheners, and personal care products are also major sources of harmful chemicals that contribute to indoor air pollution.

To help combat indoor air pollution from all sources, use a high quality AirDoctor air purifier, designed to trap particles 100 times smaller than the HEPA standard. AirDoctor helps minimize your and your family’s exposure to a wide range of pollutants, including VOCs and other harmful chemicals found in fragranced consumer products

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